A dilemma confronts each and every citizen of a country at war: what to do if you believe that your country is in the wrong?
The overwhelmingly common action is inaction. Silence protects you from most present consequences and allows you, in the future, to say, “I never said a word in favor of that war.”
But what if your revulsion for your country’s aggression compels you to speak out or act against the excesses of a patriotism gone mad? People are swept up in a combative fervor when surrounded by compatriots who feel aggrieved or threatened. At such times, even silence can condemn you for not coming to the party of war. And if you do express opinions opposing your nation’s military, you run the risk of being seen as someone aiding and abetting the enemy.
This circumstance is by no means limited to any particular nation. Japanese and Germans were thrust into it for well over a decade, leading up to their countries’ defeat in 1945.
Being a citizen of a democracy does not protect you from this dilemma either. British citizens against their country’s aggression in Afghanistan; Israelis who decry the cruel occupation of Palestine; Americans who deplore their government’s trumped-up responses to the tragedy of 9/11 — all of these, too, must come to terms with their conscience or simply, later, attempt to explain their inaction away with, “I never said a word in favor. . .”
The choice can be no less harrowing for the oppressed. On a day when we are reminded of the 35-year-long annexation of Korea by Imperial Japan, we must consider the agonizing plight of every adult Korean living between 1910 and 1945 who was forced to knuckle under and remain passively safe, or choose to fight against the oppressor and take the consequences of that brave action.
I, personally and fortunately, have never been confronted with the dilemma of the front line. But back in the 1960s, the country of my birth, the United States, was engaged in an unjust and brutal war against the Vietnamese people — a war that created millions of Vietnamese casualties and wreaked havoc on the land.
Americans have subsequently not made amends for their crimes of war, either by way of apology or reparations. As is the national custom, they simply put it behind and move on. Had they collectively come to terms with their offenses, they might not have been so gung-ho about invading Iraq and Afghanistan a mere few decades later.
I left the United States for good in 1967 and, in 1976, gave up my American citizenship. My primary reason was that I did not want to be a citizen of a large and powerful country that could wage such an illegitimate war with impunity.
By then becoming an Australian citizen, however, I inherited my new country’s history. Australia was an aggressor in Vietnam as well. What made the difference?
The difference was made clear in December 1972, four months after I arrived in Australia, when then Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister. One of his first moves was to abolish conscription. A number of Labor parliamentarians denounced U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as “maniacs” and “mass murderers,” and Australia’s deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns, went so far as to call for boycotts of U.S. products.
My one chance to take a personal stand, however modest, came about a year later. I was living in Canberra, teaching Japanese at the Australian National University and writing fiction and drama. In December 1973, I received a grant of AU$150 from the National Capital Development Commission to stage a play in Garema Place, the main outdoor square in the nation’s capital.
Well, “The Fat Lady” — featuring three characters from a circus, including a politically radical transvestite — played in Garema Place one fine afternoon, drawing not only a large crowd, mostly of mums and kids (“no dear, it’s not exactly like Pinocchio’ “), but also the drama critic from The Canberra Times.
To this day I cherish, in an album, photos of the play and audience, as well as a clipping of that newspaper’s review, headlined “Gutter Humour in Garema Place.”
At this point it is pertinent to note that, in 1973, AU$150 was a lot of money, and had a buying power at least 10 times what it does today. It was the first money I ever made from my writing in Australia, and I was determined to do something positive with it.
So, I wrote a letter to the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, offering the money to that country “to be used in hospitals and schools destroyed by United States bombing.”
On Jan. 16, 1974, I received a letter from a diplomat at the embassy, the contents of which I feel, after so many years, it is not discourteous to record here.
“We thank you very much for your letter dated Jan. 14, 1974. Your lofty sentiments and kind gesture toward the Vietnamese people are greatly appreciated.
“We inform you that the contribution to healing the wounds of war in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam can be sent to our embassy in Canberra at any time which is convenient for you.”
A couple of days later I arrived at the door of the embassy, check in hand. I pressed the doorbell and glanced across the street. Two Venetian blinds in the house opposite had been parted; and, having good eyesight in those days, I could see the lens of a camera poised between them. I smiled generously into the lens, the door opened and I entered the embassy.
I never made much of a vocal stand against the war. Leaving my country was the best I could do. But I am proud of the letter and of my small contribution.
Was I naively aiding and abetting the enemy? Did my money really go to a hospital or a school? I don’t know. I am certainly not making any claim whatsoever to having done something altruistic or in any way heroic. I simply wanted the money I made from my writing to stand as a protest against a cruel and indefensible aggression.
I have been lucky in life. I have never been forced to make a choice: support a war I did not believe in, or be seen as a traitor. But the lesson I have taken from those awful years of that U.S.-led war is that each person’s individual response to injustice does matter — and that putting your guilt behind you, without at least acknowledging it, is a sure-fire way to blunder, again and again, into the criminal trap of unjustified aggression.
And I learned another thing from that heartless and mindless war: I came to realize how very hard it is for individuals to actively oppose belligerence when their nation is on the warpath. Until you are faced with the dilemma of stark personal choice — “Are you with us or against us?” — it is easy to speak out, give a few bucks for a good cause, and fancy yourself on the side of the righteous.